When A Family Member Has Alzheimer’s


My grandmother hums. It’s the same tune every time. A calm, allegro tune that swells and wanes with the rising and falling of her fragile chest. Everyone from my mother to the doctor to the bagger at Costco has picked their brains trying to decode the melody that resonates right under my grandmother’s consciousness. We’ve all come up short.

The doctors say it’s not unusual with Alzheimer’s patients. They’ll list off the technical jargon about nerve cells and proteins and genetics, but all a family member hears is that we’re losing her. The vibrant American Airlines stewardess who knit all of us sweaters even when it was ninety degrees outside and rode a camel through the Great Pyramids with the man she loved continues to slowly slip away.

The photo of her husband of fifty years rests peacefully on her nightstand. On a good day, she recognizes his kind features and smiles at him like it’s the day they were married. On an ordinary day, the face in the frame is her cousin, uncle, son, or “a rather handsome looking man, don’t you think?” On a bad day, it stands as an unwelcome presence in a foreign room.

On the ordinary days, we’ll congratulate her and tell her how lucky she is, because that handsome man was hers, and he loved her fiercely with every fiber of his being. We’ll show her photo albums overflowing with her memories. She’ll smile, agree that the couple is indeed quite beautiful, and she truly must have been very, very lucky to have lived such a wonderful life.

On the bad days, we’ll tell her what we can, and promise her that tomorrow will be better.

But that’s the thing with Alzheimer’s. You never know if tomorrow will be better, or if today is the last day they remember you.

You don’t know if tomorrow you’ll walk into their room and they’ll smile and say your name. If you’ll be able to reminisce together on the fond memories of Christmases and Thanksgivings past, or if you’ll be telling it to them as stories. You live with the hope that even though they didn’t know you today, that you’ll come back tomorrow and the recognition you crave will flash across their eyes.

I often wonder if the memories actually leave her or if they’re just locked away in a safe that she’s lost the key to. That she’s constantly in search of the key that she could have sworn she left on the coffee table. That everything she seeks is just out of reach.

On days when that key seems hopelessly lost and the safe shut tight, she’ll hum. Quietly at first, but then we’ll turn on The Sound of Music and the safe will open. Just slightly and just for a moment, but it opens. The soft refrains of “Edelweiss” will rumble through her chest, stronger and stronger, until she’s singing the words as clear as each of the von Trapps.

It’s in those moments that there’s happiness. The Alzheimer’s is banished to another room, another country, another dimension, and we all laugh and sing with her as if it had never existed. We can make a new memory that she might not remember tomorrow or in a few hours, but that we’ll cherish every single day.

I guess at this point I should clarify: My grandmother hummed. She hummed until she couldn’t hum anymore, and when that moment arrived, she left.

But I can’t write it like that, because she is not a past tense. I hear her humming when I’m driving, when I’m writing, when I’m trying to remember the actor’s name that’s right on the tip of my tongue. I guess at some point in the midst of all the doctor’s appointments and midday chats, her soundtrack became mine. So for as long as I’m alive, she hums. Present tense.

My grandmother hums just as her mother hummed and as her aunt hummed, so I suppose that one day my mother will hum and my aunts will hum. Eventually my brash, effervescent sister will hum and I’ll be right behind her. We’ll hum to fill the silence, and comfort ourselves when the face staring back in the mirror looks odd and foreign. We’ll hum to remember; we’ll hum because we can’t. But we’ll hum, and just like the life we’re leaving behind, it will be beautiful.